Living with bipolar disorder

From The Oregonian, June 20, 1999 – not available elsewhere online

[Eds. Note: One informant for this story asked politely to have this story removed from the MHAP site. It’s an important story so we agreed to redact the name.]

Three Oregonians who have manic depressive illness find that dedicated therapists and proper medications are key.

Family and friends remember Lilla Moler, Stephanie Lynn Russell and Alexandria Ison as loving and creative despite lives full of struggle.

These three women, found strangled this spring in Forest Park, were mentally ill, among the voiceless in society.

But others who live with mental illness are beginning to break that silence.

REDACTED NAME, Kevin Fitts and Anne Potter are among them. They are part of a national movement of people with mental illness who are joining or forming organizations to make their voices heard.

These three Oregonians did not know Moler, Russell or Ison. But they live with the diagnosis that the young women apparently shared: bipolar disorder.

Moler, Russell and Ison died with bipolar disorder. Drake, Fitts and Potter have something to say about how to live with it.

An estimated 2.3 million American adults — or 1 percent of the general population — live with bipolar disorder, also called manic depressive illness. It is part of a larger family of depressive illnesses that affect 19 million men and women in this country.

Bipolar disorder is like living on a teeter-totter, swooping from intense euphoria and irritability to desperate sadness, while often feeling normal in between. No one knows its cause. But researchers have found genetic links, explaining why it runs in families.

Eighty percent of disorders such as manic depressive illness can be treated with combinations of medication and therapy. And new technology allowing scientists to better study the brain gives hope for improved treatments.

REDACTED NAME kicks off her moccasins in her tree-top apartment in an old Southeast Portland house and shows a visitor how to swing dance. Music, motion and passion have defined REDACTED NAME’s 57 years.

REDACTED NAME remembers growing up in Texas in the 1950s, waging shouting matches with her father about politics and race. Her dad’s moods seemed unpredictable. Jekyll and Hyde. Just this year she learned that her father’s mother spent years in a mental hospital. Now she knows why her father warned her never to end up there.

REDACTED NAME used her master’s degree in education and her periods of immense energy to teach elementary school and then college classes. She started her own secretarial service.

She gave piano lessons, but she tried to teach her students not to depend on her. She never knew when she might become too depressed to keep teaching. Yet when that happened, she always lined up other teachers her students could try.

She worries that her students might be upset to learn of her diagnosis. She hopes they understand that personal character and mental illness are separate.

REDACTED NAME used various medications to cope with her moods. But it wasn’t until three years ago that she had a name for what ails her. Her diagnosis led her to find the right medication.

Now when in Salem lobbying legislators for mental health causes, she avoids getting too revved up or too run-down. She and her family have worked through differences. She uses art therapy. She plays the organ. She leads a calligraphy class. Calligraphy is so orderly. It makes her feel calm.

She has written a list of how to interact with manic depressives in the workplace. Reward cooperation. Discourage harassment. And remember to take care of yourself.

Kevin Fitts darts up from his office chair to demonstrate the difference between mania and depression. It’s like a ladder, he says, using his office door as a prop.

Sometimes you’re way down here, he says, stooping in his khakis and blue Oxford to touch the hardwood floor. Then he reaches with his slim frame high above the door to signify mania.

Fitts’ parents divorced when he was a child. His father often left him and his brother alone at their Wisconsin home. When Fitts’ father was home, he was working his way through a bottle of Cutty Sark. Later Fitts learned that his father’s grandmother had been locked away in a mental hospital in Illinois.

In high school, Fitts either skipped his classes or disrupted them. “I just had a lot of anger, rage,” he says.

At 17, he remembers thinking that if he could just stay drunk all the time, maybe it would help.

Fitts bounced from National Guard training in Virginia to his mother’s home in Corvallis to the streets of Portland, where he slept on heating vents. Cocaine and alcohol fueled his delusions.

For Fitts, life had always been something that slammed into him. A counselor at a group home helped him see that he could have some control. The counselor gave Fitts choices. If you come home drunk, I will kick you out.

Fitts used those lessons after he was formally diagnosed with a mood disorder. He made some choices. He stopped using drugs and alcohol. It was 1986.

Fitts tried antidepressants and lithium. He didn’t like the weight gain or the numbing effects caused by the drugs. Now he uses what he has learned in therapy to manage his behavior on his own.

He knows that when he lies in bed, wishing himself dead, that those feelings are not real. He jogs to channel his energy. He eats better. And last year, he and two friends who also live with mental illnesses started a grass-roots organization called the Office of Consumer Technical Assistance to support and advocate for their peers.

“It’s crucial to listen to the voice of the person and what they’re going through,” says Fitts, now 34. “This isn’t like a new pair of jeans. Shouldn’t we have some choice over our own health? It is time for the liberation of the patient.”

Anne Potter doesn’t remember the first time she met the psychiatrist who saved her life. She only remembers calling the ambulance in Portland in 1990 because she felt completely out of control.

She remembers struggling with the hospital attendants, wanting to explain why she had come. She remembers them pinning her down with restraints instead. She remembers the injection.

Potter, 49, knows now that she met Geraldine Price during that hospital stay. Later, Price called Potter, asking her to come see her.

Potter says too many psychiatrists just want to figure out your diagnosis, prescribe some medicines, and that’s the end of it.

Price did much more. She worked with Potter for several years to find just the right drugs for her bipolar disorder. She gave Potter her home number in case Potter needed guidance. She taught Potter to understand and control her moods.

Price recognized Potter’s intelligence. Potter graduated at the top of her class from Reed College in 1971 despite a constant knot of depression in her stomach that she combated by holing up alone with her books.

Potter received master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. That’s where she first tried therapy.

In 1978, Potter’s mother shot herself to death in the Forest Grove home where Potter grew up. Her own treatment for mental illness had failed.

Potter spent years trying anti-depressants and lithium, still holding down teaching and consulting jobs. In 1983 in Washington, D.C., she was forced to learn to talk and move again after contracting pneumonia and winding up almost paralyzed in the hospital, the lithium in her blood having reached toxic levels.

Her physical disability drove her from the work force. She suffered increased bouts of mania. Once she went out to buy a condominium even though she had no money. Her friends were alarmed.

Now in Portland she uses a motorized scooter to get around her neighborhood. She talks haltingly, carefully enunciating words. Yet she speaks with a smile and twinkle in her dark brown eyes.

Potter spends her days corresponding with friends via e-mail, devouring history books and novels, going out to dinner or coffee occasionally with friends. And she is editor of the newsletter for the Mental Health Association of Oregon.

She is not optimistic that others will be so lucky to find the right therapist. Insurance plans limit mental health coverage, and managed care formulas for financing mental health programs are causing significant cuts in services in Multnomah and other counties.

She says she knows the secret to surviving mental illness.

“If you don’t want to end up on the street or in Forest Park,” she says, “you need really decent help.”